Pension America – Taking Control Of One’s Destiny

For pension plan participants defined benefit plans (DB) must remain the backbone of the US Retirement Industry

The true objective of a pension plan is to fund liabilities (monthly benefits) in a cost effective manner with reduced risk over time. Unfortunately, it has been nearly impossible to get a true understanding of a plan’s liabilities outside of the actuary’s report, which is received by sponsors and trustees only on an annual basis, at best, and usually many months delinquent.

Fortunately, a plan’s liabilities can now be monitored and reviewed on a monthly basis through a groundbreaking index developed by Ron Ryan and his firm, Ryan ALM – The Custom Liability Index (CLI). The CLI is similar to any index serving the asset side of the equation (S&P 500, Russell 1000, Barclays U.S. Aggregate, etc.), except that the CLI measures your plan’s specific liabilities and not some generic liability stream. This critically important tool calculates the present value, growth rate, term-structure, interest rate sensitivity of your plan’s liabilities, and other important statistics such as, average yield, duration, etc. With a more transparent view of liabilities, a plan can get a truer understanding of the funded ratio / funded status.

The use of the CLI enables plan sponsors, trustees, finance officials, and asset consultants to do a more effective job allocating assets and determining funding requirements (contributions). The return on asset assumption (ROA), which has been the primary objective for most DB plans, should become secondary to a plan’s specific liabilities. Importantly, as the plan’s funded status changes, the plan’s asset allocation should respond accordingly.

Importantly, the CLI is created using readily available information from the plan’s actuary (projected annual benefits and contributions), and it is updated as necessary to reflect plan design changes, COLAs, work force and salary changes, longevity forecasts, etc. In addition, the CLI is an incredibly flexible tool in which multiple views, based on various discount rates, can be created. These views may include the ROA, ASC 715, PPA, GASB 67/68, and market-based rates (risk-free), with and without the impact of contributions.

Why should a DB plan adopt the CLI? As mentioned above, DB plans only exist to fund a benefit that has been promised in the future. As a plan’s financial health changes the asset allocation should be adjusted accordingly (dynamic). Without having the greater transparency provided by the CLI, it is impossible to know when to begin de-risking the plan. You’ve witnessed through the last 15 years the onerous impact of market volatility on the funded status of DB plans and contribution costs. Ryan ALM and KCS can help you reduce the likelihood of a repeat, and very painful, performance.

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Unintended Consequences

Unintended Consequences

Recently I had the opportunity to speak at the Financial Research Associates’ conference in NYC on non-traditional fixed income. I had the pleasure of participating on a panel with an industry icon – Ron Ryan, Ryan ALM  He and I presented on the topic “Taking a Close Look at the Liability Beta Portfolio”.  However, before presenting our views on the proper use of fixed income in a defined benefit plan, especially in a low interest rate environment, Ron and I addressed the unintended consequences from accounting rules, both GASB and FASB, that have lead to an under-reporting of plan liabilities and an overstatement of plans assets.  Given both, it is obvious that funded ratios are overstated, too.

The IASB (International Accounting Standards Board) has moved to a mark to market accounting of both pension liabilities and assets.  It isn’t too far fetched to believe that the US will adopt these same standards in the near future.  Unfortunately, since GASB uses the ROA to value plan liabilities, it becomes clear as to why the pension community continues to focus on the asset side of the equation instead of the liability side, which should be driving asset allocation and investment structure.

Attached for your review is our presentation.  We encourage you to reach out to us if you have any questions or challenges.

 

 

“The U.S. Pension Crisis”

Congratulations to Ron Ryan, CEO at Ryan ALM, on the publishing of his book titled, “The U.S. Pension Crisis”.  Ryan’s book articulates what needs to be done NOW to save America’s pensions. 

When testifying before the ERISA Committee in 2003, Ron highlighted the issues related to GASB and FASB accounting rules, and the distortions to contributions, funded ratios, earnings and balance sheets brought about by their failings.  This book is a must read for anyone who truly wants to understand why our defined benefit plans are in such a state right now.

Asset Consulting Firms and Their Consultants Aren’t Commodities

The environment for asset consulting firms is quite challenging.  Historically, there have been few barriers to entry, and measuring the value-add provided by the asset consulting firm has been difficult to gauge.  As such, hiring decisions have often come down to price, with the low bidder more often than not winning the assignment.  For those firms fortunate to be given an assignment, the life cycle of the relationship is generally fairly long (about 7 years), as it usually takes a departure of the consultant or a major screw up before the relationship is terminated.  This practice has to change.

Given the current state of defined benefit plans in the US and abroad, this is not the time to fiddle while Rome burns. It is imperative that asset consultants be judged for the value that they bring to a relationship, and they should be compensated based on that value-add.  There are many services that consultants provide, but the importance to the success or failure of a plan varies widely.  Establishing the right plan benchmark is critical, and it isn’t the ROA. We believe that it should be the plan’s specific liabilities. The investment structure and asset allocation that flows from a greater knowledge of the liabilities are key decisions that drive most of the plan’s subsequent return. However, it seems to us that most of the time (80/20 rule) is spent on trying to identify value-added managers. Get the wrong asset allocation and the best performing managers in the weakest asset class won’t help you much.

Let’s see if the industry can refocus on the importance of DB plans, so that we can stabilize the retirements for both our private and public workers.  As such, let’s begin to evaluate consulting firms that can improve the funded ratio and funded status, while minimizing contribution costs. These are the important metrics when evaluating a consulting firm and their consultants.  Experience matters in this industry.  We pay great homage to it on the asset management side of the business.  Why isn’t this as critical when evaluating asset consultants?  Remember: asset consultants have a greater impact on your plan than any individual manager does!